When children see an animal in the wild and learn to care about its well-being, they’re cultivating a skill that will serve them from the playground to the boardroom: empathy.
An empathetic kid—someone who cares about another’s well-being—is more likely to share, help, and collaborate with others. Having empathy also helps children combat loneliness and better understand and express their feelings. And it turns out that exposure to domestic or wild animals can be important in developing these skills.
"The fact that a child cares about the welfare of a vulnerable animal that can’t protect itself is good support for moral development," says Mary Gordon, founder and president of Roots to Empathy, an organization aimed at fostering empathy in children. "When children understand what another being feels, our research shows that they help more and hurt less."
And who better to help kids relate to animals than their parents? According to Kevin Coyle, vice president of education and training at the National Wildlife Federation, children take cues from moms and dads who view animals as intelligent, feeling beings. So telling a child that the cute squirrel is actually very smart in the way it finds and stores food, or that one shouldn’t scare away harmless snakes in the wild because they might be protecting their eggs like good parents, helps make the child more appreciative of the animal.
“Seeing animals as living, thinking, and feeling creatures makes a difference,” Coyle says. Yep, even those slithering snakes!